London – Arsenal took a significant step towards the Europa League semi-finals as Aaron Ramsey inspired a 2-0 win over Napoli in the quarter-final first leg on Thursday.
Unai Emery’s side seized control of the tie with a dominant first-half performance at the Emirates Stadium.
Ramsey opened the scoring with a cool finish to cap a flowing move and the Gunners were further ahead before half-time when Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly deflected Lucas Torreira’s shot into his own net.
Arsenal couldn’t add to the lead after the break, but they had done enough to put themselves in pole position ahead of the second leg in Naples on April 18.
It was a much-needed success for Emery, who this week called on his players to embrace the pressure of regaining their Champions League status after two successive seasons out of Europe’s elite club competition.
With Arsenal sitting fifth in the Premier League after Sunday’s damaging defeat at Everton, the Gunners can no longer rely on their domestic fortunes to qualify for the Champions League.
That gives the Europa League extra importance, underlining why Emery had played strong line-ups in the tournament all season to keep the option of reaching the Champions League by lifting the trophy.
Having won the Europa League three times during his tenure as Sevilla boss, Emery knows the value of a first leg lead and he sent out an attacking line-up featuring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil.
Emery’s men were quickly on the front foot and Koulibaly showed why he is a target for Manchester United with a two brave blocks to stop shots from Aaron Ramsey and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Despite Koulibaly’s best efforts, Arsenal needed just 15 minutes to take the lead.
A stylish move carved Napoli open as Ramsey and Ozil exchange passes in midfield before Lacazette fed Maitland-Niles.
Ramsey had continued his run into the Napoli area and the Wales midfielder met Maitland-Niles’ pass with a composed close-range finish for his sixth goal of the season.
It was the perfect way for Ramsey to announce himself to an Italian audience ahead of his close-season move to Juventus.
– Smooth transition –
Torreira is one of the midfielders who will take over from Ramsey and the Uruguayan showed why that should be a smooth transition as he helped double Arsenal’s advantage in the 25th minute.
Tigerishly dispossessing Fabian Ruiz inside the Napoli half, Torreira accelerated towards the penalty area, cleverly checked back to open up more space and drilled a low shot that took a hefty deflection off Koulibaly as it looped into the net.
Napoli are trailing a distant second in Serie A behind Juventus and had endured disappointing results in their previous two games.
The lack of cohesion and confidence in his team made it a far different experience for Napoli boss Carlo Ancelotti than his last visit to the Emirates in 2017, which ended in a 5-1 Champions League victory with Bayern Munich.
Napoli keeper Alex Meret was at full-stretch to keep out Aubameyang’s long-range blast as Arsenal threatened to embarrass the Italians.
Without a win in seven visits to England, Napoli’s hopes of ending that barren run dwindled even further when Lorenzo Insigne blazed over from close range.
Napoli tried to rally after the interval, but Koulibaly’s header was tipped over by Petr Cech, while Piotr Zielinski blew their best chance when he missed the target with only the keeper to beat.
Arsenal remained dangerous and it took a good save from Meret to deny Ramsey before Maitland-Niles was also frustrated by the over-worked Napoli keeper.
Ramsey should have put the result beyond doubt when he shot over in the closing stages, but Arsenal will still travel to Italy in confident mood next week.